Saturday, March 19, 2011

Port Saint Lucie

An Introduction:

One the final frontiers of my baseball travels was the harbinger of better things: Spring Training. With my parents wintering in Florida for the first time, everything was in place to check this off my list.

On The Joys of Air Travel

Friday, March 18, 2011
Boynton Beach, Florida

Outside of the Game:
Any day not a work is by definition a good day, but even Mother Nature herself seemed to shine a smile on this day, as the Spring weather in New Jersey came within five degrees of my destination in Florida, although it apparently got much colder up North for the rest of the weekend in my absence.

I had a civilized early afternoon flight out of Newark Liberty God Bless America Airport to West Palm Beach. I had originally feared that I would be the only person over 30 on a plane full of college kids going to Spring Break, but the dumb-ass twenty-something traffic was going in the other direction, as break was the week before for most colleges. As it occurred, I would in fact be one of the few passengers under 70.

I got to Newark Liberty Bald Eagle Apple Pie Airport with time to spare, and so grabbed a sandwich for the flight before lining up to board. The boarding process was a chaotic affair, as there were so many special boarding customers, and the gate staff did very little to keep a firm hand on order until things got jiggy. With so many special boarders without staff comment, eventually the unwashed masses just figured it was general boarding and started to storm the gate. The airline employees then resorted to imperious orders, clearly frustrated with our inability to follow the many dictums they hadn't actually provided until that very moment.

We eventually began the cheery death march to our seats, but on the jetway, staff were confiscating every other person's carry-on bags rather abruptly and with little explanation beyond "low carry-on space." It will likely not surprise the reader to know that the flight attendants claimed to know nothing about why the bags were being taken [and no doubt appreciated half of the plane being grumpied up for them], and that there was, of course, a completely empty overhead bin at my seat.

These disappointments behind me, I settled in for a movie and Japanese practice for the short flight down. In a cloudless sky with no wind, we managed to encounter some middling turbulence on the way to the ground, but it was an otherwise uneventful flight.

On landing, I was met by my father, and everyone who had their bags illegally seized got refreshedly grumpied again as we trundled down to the baggage claim. In what was clearly a severe crime against all of humanity, our day was utterly ruined by the extra half hour removed by the wait, and I drove back to my parent's condo with my dad.

The thing I always forget about Florida is how god-awful bright the place is. You can't even adequately describe the brightness, as it transcends the common five senses and is bright straight through you as a metaphysical object -- no amount of mere solid shading can fully protect you from it. I spent a good deal of the ride back with my eyes tightly shut and my hat pushed down hard on my head in an inadequate effort to keep said brightness at bay. After meeting my mother at the condo and dropping off my stuff, my father took my for a bright drive around the bright town, followed by my rather energetic nap back at the condo, huddled indoors away from the endless, sentient bright.

That evening, my parents were hosting a party for a metric gaggle of my relatives at the condo. I got to see cousins and uncles and whatnot I hadn't seen in decades, or met new offspring with whom I had not yet been acquainted. The years in particular had not been kind to my uncle, who was knee-deep in Alzheimer's. I always remember him as a quick-witted cut-up goofball always telling off-color jokes to his nephews, but this evening, he spent the entire night starting and stopping the same story with a glazed stare. So there's that.

In more depressing news, I lost my Walmart virginity that night. I had brought my brand-new camera down with me to field test it at the game on Saturday, and during the flight, the lens cap had fallen off in my camera case, leaving my shiny news lens a mess of dust. I managed to leave my cleaning kit at home, so I had to get something suitable to clean the lens. We ordered pizza for everyone at the party, and down the street from the pizzeria was a Walmart, which was my best bet for camera supplies in the area. Bowing to the inevitable, I overcame the tangible wall of despair and went in, found a cleaning kit in two minutes, and then spent ten trying to check out. Weighing the options of the octogenarian manning the electronics counter and the few listless-looking cashiers meandering their way through their lines of equally listless customers, my best course of action left me at the mercy of a a self-check out isle. So not only did I visit a Walmart, it is forever recorded on my credit card statement for posterity and eternity.

On a more positive note, most of my cousin's kids are huge baseball fans. One was the relation who came up to New York last year to see the Subway Series game. It is rare to be around so many other hard-core fans, so there was a good deal of baseball talk for most of the evening, which was agreeable enough. Most of the assembled would also be joining my father and me at the game the next day.

Eventually the evening ran down, we split up the tickets for the next day, and everyone either went home or went to bed.

The Accommodations:
As mentioned, I stayed at my parent's condo in one of the many senior-only communities that seemed to dominate the landscape down there. This summer was an experiment for them in the snow bird lifestyle, as they both had recently retired completely, and my father was enthusiastic about the prospect of golfing all year. They rented this unit from my godfather's widow, and it was in a nice enough community right on the Intracoastal Waterway (which I embarrassingly enough didn't know existed until I got there and had my father explain the thing to my disbelieving self). A doored-in porch off the kitchen led out to a lawn that was directly next to the Intracoastal, so it was a nice enough thing.

I did, however, have to sleep on the couch. I have slept on worse couches to be sure, but I was younger, and had a much more compliant lower back in those days.

On Everything Turning Up Oogie

Digital Domain Park
Digital Domain Park, 2011
Saturday, March 19, 2011
Washington Nationals vs. New York Metropolitans [Split Squad]
Digital Domain Park
Grapefruit League
Port Saint Lucie, Florida
1:10 PM

Outside of the Game:
Port St. Lucie is a good hour from my parents' condo, so we had to leave at a relatively early hour in expectation of getting there in time for the gate opening at just after 11. My father and I had to give a ride to one of my cousin's sons, as well as drop off some chairs and whatnot they had borrowed for the party the night before.

My cousin's husband is an architect by trade, and they were in the process of moving out of a multi-million-dollar spec home he designed in which they had been living. I got the grand tour, and as impressive as the house was, I can't imagine what it must be to try and live there. How does one do some laundry when you carry your laundry through the colonnade, down the spiral staircase, and over the hardwood floors to the marble-inlaid laundry room. I suppose the obvious answer is, "You don't; the help does," but it still doesn't address issues such as: Is it really comfortable to sit in a pile of Tuscan throw pillows on an ornate Italianate fainting couch to watch some TV?

One thing I did discover during the tour was the stack of computer games in the kid's room. And there it was. There was one of my tribe here. After finding this out, he and I spent a good portion of the drive up to the stadium talking about video games and the like, to the great consternation of my father, who had barely tolerated my own interest in the subject growing up. Being trapped in a car with two computer game nerds was as annoying to him as, well, being trapped in a car with my parents was to me.

After the game, there was an uneventful drive home, punctuated by naps by my cousin's son and myself, only interrupted by my father, annoyed that he, too, couldn't take a nap until we got back home. We dropped my relation off and then went back to the condo, where my parents ran off to catch the late Saturday mass while I hit the condo complex's exercise room and got ready for dinner.

My parents and I went out to one of the myriad of local Italian restaurants and had a tolerable evening alone in each other's company before returning to the condo to get some rest.

The Stadium & Fans:
Home to center, Digital Domain Park
Home plate to center field, Digital Domain Park

This was my first foray into Spring Training baseball, and I had spent years hearing about what a dump Digital Domain Park (nee Tradition Field) was. And in at least one regard it quite lived up to that reputation, as the signage to get to the park is actively unhelpful. Although there are some not-at-all-attention-getting signs for the stadium on the highway, the signs nearly immediately disappear in an unhelpful way right before a crucial turn for the stadium needs to be made. Literally one more sign with an arrow pointing to the right would save the process, but it is apparently not seen as necessary, as my car merrily went on its way until we realized we had definitely gone too far and consulted a local for more specific directions to triangulate our position. The GPS entry for the stadium is similarly counter-productive. The whole thing can be seen an a massive allegory for the lack of details that permeates the Metropolitans franchise from the ground up, so that this should be the case at their Spring Training facility should be no great surprise.

Another great knock against the facility from players and broadcasters both former and current is the lack of anything to do in Port St. Lucie. I was not able to get any data on that, but the much-maligned park itself was not the letdown I was expecting. While I don't have much experience with other Spring Training facilities in Florida, Digital Domain Park itself was a quite respectable single-A park (which it is for the remainder of the year for the Port St. Lucie Mets), although extensive renovations on the facility had happened twice prior to my visit.

The seating is all on one level, with a large concrete overhang covering the area behind home plate, and metal bleachers extending out the right field line, terminating in "The Berm," a picnic area in the outfield with its own entrance and concessions. Regular concessions fill the area behind the seating bowl, with a number of specialty and premium concessions, such as the Tiki Bar in Left Field, the Dyna-Met Grille, and a "mini-burger" stand (which probably are not called "Sliders" because that's the mascot's name, and so unfortunate associations could be made).

There is also common talk about the Metropolitans being unable to fill their Spring Training stadium, but it was close to a capacity crowd the day I went, which was a weekend home day game late in the Spring schedule. The crowd was active and into it, and if I had to guess, I'd say at least a third of them were people like myself -- non-locals coming down explicitly to visit to see Spring Training baseball.

At the Game With Oogie:
Autographed jersey
I never win things.

As mentioned, the game had turned into something of a family event. My father and one of my cousin's kids came up with us in the car. Joining us later would be another cousin's ex-husband and three of their children. Also as mentioned, the signage to get to the stadium is not exactly the clearest, and the later group got extremely lost, not appearing until the third inning at some point. And they are locals to Florida.

But my main excitement for the game had happened before they even showed up. My father enjoys during the word jumble and other puzzles in the daily paper and had made some noise about not being able to get a paper that day because we had to leave so early. My cousin's son and he went into the stadium while I did my OCD photography outside. While there, I saw a local paper that was giving away copies of their product with the purchase of a $3 set of baseball cards. Next to that booth was some charity of some sort that was selling raffle tickets. Whenever I go to a game, and there is any sort of charity event or whatnot, I find it good for the karma to participate. Without thinking too much about it, I bought the baseball cards and three raffle tickets for $5 and then went into the stadium to drop off the paper to my father and go around and take more pictures.

All of this was promptly forgotten until about the second inning when someone came to my row looking for me by name. It took me a little while to process everything, but I had won the raffle I entered, which was for a signed Jose Reyes jersey. After posing for a picture, the item in question was unceremoniously handed over in a crappy plastic bag, which I promptly put into my waterproof game bag and got out of harm's way. It seemed that the gods of baseball were shining on me this afternoon.

The Game:
First pitch, Nationals vs. Metropolitans
First pitch, Nationals vs. Metropolitans

This one was over quickly. The Mets' Capuano was fresh off the disabled list and had the Nationals in his pocket, taking a no-hitter most of the way through the fourth inning. The Nats' Marquis was not as adept. His wildness and inability to spot his pitches led to the Mets teeing off to the tune of four runs in the bottom of the first. Despite scattering some base runners in the next few frames, Marquis managed to hold it together until the fourth, where he let two singles go before being pulled for relief that walked another and gave up a long triple that brought everyone home, leaving the Mets with a 7-0 lead at the start of the fifth.

Relief pitchers started flying fast and furious in the middle innings, as is wont in spring games. In the top of the seventh, a new Mets' twirler gave up a ground rule double and a walk before taking a seat. Time stopped at this point for me, as I was trying to work out who was the pitcher being brought in to replace him, and why the number "46" seemed so familiar.

The crushing despair of realization hit me, as I buried my face in my hands and knew that the seven run lead was not even remotely safe, and one of my cousins' kids in the row behind figured out what was happened and tried to comfort me.

Perennial jackass Oliver F-ing Perez was being brought in.

I don't have an accurate count, but within five pitches, a towering home run was flying over the fence in the other direction, bringing home three runs. The crowd did not even have time to work up a good "boo" before Perez gave up another even longer shot to the next batter. Momentarily stupefied by this rash display of incompetence, the crowd found its voice again and began to rain down a Philadelphia-level of abuse on Perez. Although managing to get two outs on hard-hit balls to short and left field, he walked the next batter before the manager went to get him.

Hopefully the last time he leaves the mound in a Metropolitan uniform

Somewhere just prior to this moment, I was overcome with a great sense of transcendent joy. Perez was walking a razor's edge between life and death on the roster, and I realized that this pathetic performance against a split squad of the only team in the league worse than the Mets had most likely sealed his fate and would force the team to finally kick him out on his ass. I would be likely witnessing Oliver Perez's last walk off the mound as a Met, and with a zealot's gusto I began taking pictures of this blessed event. As it turned out, I was correct, and I contemplate turning the pictures into many different celebratory items, including posters and t-shirts.

After the seventh, scattered baserunners aside, the game went quietly, and the Mets held on for a 7-4 victory.

The Scorecard:
Nationals vs. Metropolitans, 03-19-11. Metropolitans win, 7-4.
Nationals vs. Metropolitans, 03/19/11. Metropolitans win, 7-4.

The $6 program had a full-sized scorecard in the center. It had a lot of space and a lot of extra lines to accommodate those crazy enough to try and score a Spring Training game. And since there was no lineup on the scoreboard in center, trying to keep up with all the player swaps (even in this relatively late Spring game) was a bit of a challenge, especially in the late innings, when farm hands not in the program with jersey numbers in the 90s started showing up every inning. Only one member of the Nationals was left unmolested for the entire game, and another Nat stayed for the whole contest, but switched positions once.

There was a lot of scoring lunacy with a lot of unconventional outs. The top of the first ended with a National getting picked off first, and the bottom of the first ended with two consecutive outfield assists. The first was a rundown on a runner trying to score from first on a double (leading to the all-so-common 9-2-5 putout), and the last was a runner trying to score from second and a single, in a good-olde 7-2. A couple of dropped third strikes in the top of the third ended the wackiness from a scoring perspective.

The Accommodations:
Back at my parents' condo again for another round of couch versus lower back, though I was in a decidedly better frame of mind than the night previous.

On Escaping Unharmed

Sunday, March 20, 2011
Hoboken, NJ

Outside of the Game:
On Sunday, I had to head home. While the weather was much less warm where I was going, it would assuredly be much less bright, so it had that going for it. I slept in a little, hit the workout room at the condo, and then washed and packed up. After the assorted parents had been assembled, it was time for brunch. For some reason, of all the early afternoon eating options available in Florida, my parents had developed an affectation for Denny's. Since I hadn't been there in a number of years, I had no particular objection besides the obvious.

A leisurely brunch later, we headed off to the airport, where I was left off. My parents not having a computer available to them, I had to check in at the airport, and there was trouble at the kiosk, as there always seems to be. With the help of a pleasant ticket agent, I was able to get my boarding pass, but not before my suspicion was raised. I bummed amicably around the airport until it was time to board my flight.

And then they announced that the flight was oversold, and the crowd, as they say, turned ugly. Everyone shot daggers at the elite members that boarded first and there no doubt was even some resentment cast towards the elderly, infirm, and infant-bearers who similarly got early admission to the insufficient amount of seats. The general boarding of seat rows set off a general, but orderly, scrum of edgy tri-state residents to the plane.

Fate was still with me, however, and I managed to get to my seat and stow my bag with no further incident, and apparently enough people took the carrot from the airline that there was no forcible removal of patrons from the plane. An interesting side note: When the overhead space on the plane got full, the stewardess closed up the full overhead bins and helpfully told passengers arriving to stow their baggage in any of the overhead bins further up the plane. Clearly she had read the manual. Perhaps she can lend it to the flight crew on the other damn plane.

A movie, Japanese practice, some turbulence, and a mild sense of deja vu later, I was in Newark to pick up my limo ride home to a fun-filled evening of laundry.

The Accommodations:
Be it ever so humble, there's no place like Hoboken.

2011 Stand-Alone Trip